INDIANAPOLIS -- Ask most anyone in and around the NFL what they believe the Denver Broncos' biggest need is this offseason following their Super Bowl 50 win, and the most common answer, unanimous really, is the team’s offensive line.
And as offensive linemen have arrived at the NFL’s scouting combine this week, the Broncos agree.
"I would think of it this way: First of all, I think we’re young, and so I like our future from that standpoint," said coach Gary Kubiak on Wednesday at the combine. “At the same time, we feel like we definitely have to improve. Does that make it a high priority? I don’t know. We’re going prepare for this draft at every position just like we do each and every year. Obviously it’s a position that we feel like we need to improve upon offensively."
How that unfolds in terms of how many linemen the Broncos select in their draft class and how early they do it will be part of the story that's still to be told.
Like last year, Kubiak and the team's decision-makers hope to assemble a group up front with some youth so it can stay together in the seasons to come. That plan was largely shoved off the tracks this past season, first when Evan Mathis was signed to play left guard instead of rookie Max Garcia and then when rookie left tackle Ty Sambrailo suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in Week 3.
That took two Broncos rookies out of the lineup. Garcia eventually moved in and out of the lineup as Mathis battled an ankle injury and right guard Louis Vasquez had some knee troubles.
“We went through a great deal -- a lot of tough times this year, you guys know that," Kubiak said. “... I think with the situation we went through, we had to move some guys around. Evan and Lou were beat up a great deal of time."
Center Matt Paradis, in his first year as a starter after spending his rookie season in 2014 on the team’s practice squad, is the likely starting point of the rebuild up front. Paradis was the only player on either offense or defense who played every snap this past season. The Broncos like Garcia’s future, but he has to improve in pass protection while Michael Schofield struggled mightily in spots -- four of Khalil Mack's five sacks against the Broncos in Oakland’s win in Denver were with Schofield across from him -- but he rallied in the postseason a bit.
And Kubiak said Sambrailo “has a bright future," and added Wednesday that Sambrailo will be ready to go when the Broncos open their organized team activities (OTAs) in May.
But with a draft class that is deep in defensive linemen, especially coveted edge rushers, it’s possible the Broncos, picking at the bottom rounds as a Super Bowl winner, could benefit the way they have in the previous two drafts.
In the last two drafts the Broncos have selected a player rated more highly than their pick -- Bradley Roby in the 2014 draft and Shane Ray in 2015 -- because of decisions made by the teams above them. Any run on defensive linemen, or even quarterbacks to a certain extent, could push offensive linemen, particularly tackles and guards, down to the Broncos in each of the early rounds. And the Broncos would take a long look, especially if the players show the kind of football aptitude Garcia and Sambrailo showed at last year’s combine when the Broncos quizzed them each on football matters.
“When (offensive linemen) are in the spread game it’s a little bit of a different type of run game as far as watching a guy come off the ball and power-type football and those types of things," Kubiak said. “I think evaluating their football knowledge (is important). In my history with guys -- we had a guy like Max last year that came to play for us from (the University of) Florida. Through this combine and through our time with Max, we knew talking football to him that he could make a quick transition. I think that’s really important -- their football knowledge and how quick they can help you."